Profile picture
Kevin Kneupper @kneupperwriter
, 30 tweets, 6 min read Read on Twitter
Just read "Microworlds" by Stanislaw Lem, a book of literary criticism of the sci-fi genre that I think for any science fiction author (or reviewer) should be a must-read. It's especially interesting as a mirror of recent controversy.

Thread with some summary / thoughts below.
Lem was a writer in Soviet-occupied Poland who got into sci-fi because that was the only place his books could get past the censors. They viewed sci-fi as children's adventure fantasy and didn't watch it very closely so it was much easier to publish what you wanted.
The result was Lem breaking out as a world-famous author after he smuggled deep philosophical texts past the Soviet censors disguised as collections of robot fairy tales or Buck Rogers-style space adventures. As he got older the censorship died down and he was more free to write.
Microworlds is a collection of essays Lem wrote in the 70's and 80's which amount to a caustic critique of the state of the sci-fi genre from the point of view of an outsider who because of where he lived had long had no access to anything but very early sci-fi works.
Lem viewed about 99% of everything out there as total trash. The criticisms he makes often sound very similar to recent Left/Right debates about the current state of sci-fi - except he's off the political charts and writing the same thing 40 and 50 years ago.
One of the key critical concepts he talks about is that as a genre, sci-fi is somewhat unique in its literary aspirations. Lem calls this the "Upper Realm" (respected literary writers) vs the "Lower Realm" (writers who are viewed more as entertainment and nothing else).
In some genres writers are happy to be in the Lower Realm. Entertainment is entertainment and that's fine. In sci-fi it's a little different:

"The best science fiction novels want to smuggle themselves into the Upper Realm--but in 99.9 percent of cases, they do not succeed."
He describes this as an open promise / feature touted by the genre in its self-promotion: sci-fi is the genre of ideas, that speculates about the future, that often in fact inspires and creates the future.

But in Lem's view most of those efforts are doomed to fail.
He identifies a few interesting reasons: (1) is the economic issues of publishing, which requires a constant stream of new product thrown against the wall. But this is antithetical to efforts to create art that could ever enter the Upper Realm:
"In the Upper Realm it is the author who alone determines the title, length, form, and style of his work, and his right to do so is guaranteed unequivocally by the letter of his contract."
"In the Upper Realm literary texts are considered in their integrity untouchable and taboo because they are almost sacred art objects."
There's a truth to this and certainly it exists today as well: the publishing process is designed to sandpaper away the quirks of the author and the author's personality to the extent that it differs from consensus concepts of "good writing."
Hard to imagine Philip K. Dick ever getting a first novel today, or ever being allowed to do some of the batshit crazy stuff he dived off into.

I actually think his writing is bad. But it's not the writing that attracts fans to his work.
Lem also identifies a lack of education by authors in the great thinkers in science, philosophy, and many other fields.

This isn't a problem if you're just trying to entertain. It is a problem if you're trying to "smuggle" works into the Upper Realm from sci-fi.
There are two basic kind of authors who try this.

First are the literary fiction types who write sci-fi because it sells better than lit fiction. There's a long tradition of this (Vonnegut etc).

Second are the "idea" types who focus on creating a work of science / philosophy.
The lack of reading is really a bigger problem than it was when Lem wrote this because of how much of our time is spent on other form of entertainment. It's actually kind of jarring to read old "pulp" works and see them name-drop philosophy texts that no one's even heard of today
Dick for example was exploring old philosophy texts from the pre-Socratics, from Bishop Berkeley, from various religions, etc., many of which are referenced in his books. If you read those texts it's clear where his ideas came from and how he's adding to them.
Very hard to create "philosophical sci-fi" or "idea sci-fi" if you don't deep dive into nonfiction works of others. A few are doing it well today (@gregeganSF or @nealstephenson stand out) but it's probably even less common than when Lem was writing the critique.
The other method of smuggling - the literary fiction approach - is a big part of the problem of today's sci-fi in my view as well. Too much effort to ape the genre conventions of a totally different genre.
Why? Because that genre doesn't sell well enough to fund all who want to write it. So authors try the Vonnegut approach - write sci-fi and hope to escape the "whorehouse" as Lem also calls it. But mostly that just means bad sci-fi that doesn't give readers what they want.
Most readers of the genre want the idea fiction, not character studies. But most publishers / editors / etc. today want Upper Realm fiction. Same deal as the authors - not enough slots. They want respect, so they ape the works that get respect.
That's a problem though because of one of the final issues Lem identifies: the structure of a literary work should be determined from the purpose of the work.

If the purpose is "entertain" you want a generic space adventure etc. But not if the purpose is to explore ideas.
In his own career Lem pursued this off into Borges-style books collecting fake reviews of non-existent novels that were all about exploring the ideas in those non-existent novels. Eventually he abandoned the idea of entertainment at all and just wrote non-fiction.
I view that as a mistake - Lem's earlier works like the Cyberiad are great examples of the best of sci-fi. In many cases constraints lead to better writing than total freedom does. Lem's constraint was he had to hide his ideas from the Soviets.
His robot fairy tales combine the best of story (which humans by their nature use to understand the world around them) with the best of philosophy (exploring ideas in simple allegorical form). It makes the work more accessible and makes it easier to probe and test the ideas.
I don't view the issues with current sci-fi as a Left/Right debate. I think it's partially because of the aping of literary fiction, and partially because of the decline of the structural form that is best suited to sci-fi, the short story.
Short stories are ideal for exploring philosophical or scientific ideas as compared to a novel, which in the sci-fi genre often ends up unfocused with lots of ideas mashed together mostly for world-building purposes. Even many of the best sci-fi novels are closer to long novellas
Publishers won't publish them in the belief that they can't sell. I think that's wrong - they can't sell if they have no theme. If the reader can't give an elevator pitch of your collection, it can't spread. But Cyberiad for example has a theme and connections between stories.
So sum of a long thread is: everything people complain about in sci-fi was an issue 50 years ago. It'll probably be an issue 50 years from now, too. That doesn't mean authors can't try to rise above if they want to. Microworlds is a great blueprint of some ideas as to how.
In the end writing is the best criticism:

"Qualitative norms and upper limits are established in literature by concrete works and not critics' postulates. No mountain of theoretical lucubrations can compensate for the absence of an outstanding fictional work as a lofty model."
Missing some Tweet in this thread?
You can try to force a refresh.

Like this thread? Get email updates or save it to PDF!

Subscribe to Kevin Kneupper
Profile picture

Get real-time email alerts when new unrolls are available from this author!

This content may be removed anytime!

Twitter may remove this content at anytime, convert it as a PDF, save and print for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video

1) Follow Thread Reader App on Twitter so you can easily mention us!

2) Go to a Twitter thread (series of Tweets by the same owner) and mention us with a keyword "unroll" @threadreaderapp unroll

You can practice here first or read more on our help page!

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just three indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member and get exclusive features!

Premium member ($3.00/month or $30.00/year)

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!